The outcome of those tests, part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation’s report card, showed that student performance in urban public schools was not only poor but also far short of science scores in the nation as a whole.
Half or a little more of the eighth-grade students in Charlotte, San Diego and Boston lacked a basic grasp of science.
In six of the other cities — New York, Houston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Atlanta — the share of eighth graders without that knowledge was even higher, ranging from about three-fifths in New York to about four-fifths in Atlanta. By comparison, the corresponding share for the nation as a whole was 43 percent.
Among the 10 cities, only in Austin were the eighth graders who lacked a basic understanding in the minority, and just barely there.
“It’s a national disgrace,” said Rodger W. Bybee, director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, which develops and evaluates science curriculums and promotes the teaching of science. “We as a nation should be able to do better than that.”
At the fourth-grade level, a majority of students in all the 10 cities except Austin, Charlotte and San Diego failed to demonstrate basic understanding in science, compared with 34 percent nationwide. According to a report accompanying the scores, this meant they lacked the skills and reasoning needed to learn science, and could not read simple charts or follow elementary experiments. A similar definition, though with expectations of a higher level of skill, applied to eighth graders.
Students in New York were on a par with those in other large cities, though white students there scored lower than whites in other cities and in the nation. The scores of blacks and Latinos in New York were not significantly different from those of similar students in the other cities.
New York’s schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, pointed out in a statement that low-income students there had done better than those in most other cities, but added, “We, like the rest of the country, have a lot more work to do in this critical area” of teaching science to the poor.
He noted that beginning with the next academic year, the city would begin testing students annually in science in Grades 3 to 8. Another innovation for the 2007-8 school year is that under the No Child Left Behind Act, public schools across the country must begin testing students in science at least once from Grades 3 to 8. But the results of these tests, like those of New York’s, will not determine whether schools have made sufficient progress under the law, which counts only reading and math to determine a school’s standing.
While states use a hodgepodge of tests to measure student achievement, the national assessment is the only exam given to students nationwide. The science test — in earth, physical and life sciences — was given in early 2005 to 280,000 students, including an extra 30,000 at public schools in the 10 cities, which had volunteered so that they could get a comparative snapshot of performance. The scores were grouped in four categories, from below basic to advanced.
The results prompted the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the nation’s largest school districts, to call for national standards in science, and in reading and math as well.
Michael Casserly, the group’s executive director, acknowledged that political resistance to national standards was strong in a nation that generally considers education a prerogative of localities. But Mr. Casserly said such standards would lend clarity to efforts to improve achievement.
The fourth-grade national assessment, he said, tests students in subjects like electrical circuitry, the difference between plant and animal cells, and the formation of rocks. “But some state standards,” he continued, “don’t teach them until the fifth grade. It is not clear, then, what our teachers are supposed to teach when.”
Gerald Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, who wrote some of the questions asked on the national assessment, said he found the test results “extremely disappointing.”
“There’s no way these kids are going to be able to survive in our technological society,” Dr. Wheeler said.
With the exception of fourth graders in Austin, low-income students in urban schools performed significantly below the average for low-income students nationwide. “Student poverty, parent education, home resources, English-language proficiency and other factors outside our control work in tandem like a perfect storm to dampen our results in ways that few others have to contend with,” Mr. Casserly said.
But the results suggested that performance was influenced more by the disparities associated with race and income than by whether students attended school in cities or in other settings, said Darvin M. Winick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the test.
For example, while Atlanta was below the median in the ranking of urban performance, its white fourth graders not only did better on the exam than did 86 percent of fourth graders across the country but also outperformed the nation’s white fourth graders as a whole, who reached only the 62nd percentile. At the same time, the city’s black fourth graders were in the bottom 22 percent of fourth graders nationwide — two points below the national average for blacks.
Only in Austin, Houston and Charlotte did black and Latino fourth graders score higher than similar students in the nation as a whole. Still, their scores were in the bottom 25 percent to 32 percent of all students taking the exam.